The meaning of religion: book groups and the social inflection of reading
Ronald, Emily Katherine
MetadataShow full item record
The religious book club provides a fascinating location for observing the social construction of reality. This study sets out to discover how religious identities affected reading and how reading affected religious identity through examining social reading. Seven book groups, all in the Boston area, participated. Three groups were affiliated with a church or synagogue, three had no religious affiliation, and the seventh was transitioning away from a religious affiliation. Fieldwork within the groups and individual interviews are analyzed using grounded theory techniques. All readers used reading to pursue aims such as relationships, educational status, and transformations of identity, but only readers within the religiously affiliated groups experienced an "inflection" of those aims. While readers in nonreligious book groups developed friendships, the religious book group members developed a sense of congregational identity. Nonreligious group readers sought to be "well read" religious group members sought to be articulate believers. Many readers sought to transform themselves through books, but religious groups transformed their members through emphasizing boundaries and identities, constructing shared definitions of "religion." Nonreligious group members were unconcerned with tying book club identity to personal identity. Religious groups, through confirming and challenging definitions of religion, developed religious identities that were expected to have deeper relevance to individual lives. Individual religious identity did not inflect the aims of reading, since religious individuals in nonreligious groups did not develop their sense of belonging, status, or identity around religious constructions. Within religious groups, it was not religious doctrines, ethics, or awe that produced the religious inflection of reading's aims. Only the affiliation with a formal religious institution was necessary. This demonstrates that religion functions not as a foundational worldview for its adherents, but as a thin container that offers the opportunity to develop a deeper, more durable identity. Despite reading's construction as a primarily individual activity, these findings also demonstrate how the social infrastructure of reading can have important effects.